Growing up “dirt poor” in a tiny parish in Jamaica, Althea Becke had to wash her clothes by hand and carry water from a common well for bathing and cooking.
Her fondest memories are of being with her late grandmother, Nettie Green, who taught her to cook Caribbean delicacies, such as goat-head soup, over an open fire. As they cut up carrots, turnips, yams, and potatoes to add to the bubbling broth, Grandma Nettie would share important lessons about spirituality and life — lessons that Becke still lives by.
“She always said, ‘Give all you can because God would give it back to you tenfold.’ I didn’t know what the hell she meant,” recalled Becke, who is now 41 and living in Columbia, Md.
She gets it now.
Boy, does she get it now.
After her best childhood friend in Jamaica, Bernice Reid, died of ovarian cancer in 2015, Becke decided to adopt Reid’s daughter, Sherika, then 2, and bring the little girl to the United States to live with her family, which includes her fiance Omar Hanson and three children: Christopher McGlothan, 20, Keon McGlothan, 17, and Arthur Becke Jr., 8.
“Bernice always said, ‘If something ever happens to me, I want you to take care of Sherika,' ” Becke said. “
But Becke, a real estate property manager, was stymied by the $30,000 to $50,000 expense she was told would be associated with such an adoption. She shared her dilemma with friends while they all dined on a delicious Jamaican feast of jerk chicken, cabbage medley, rice, and peas she had prepared. That’s when one friend, who was especially savoring the meal, suggested that Becke start selling her food to raise the needed funds.
The very next day, Becke started working on her new business, which she initially named Authentic Jamaican Cuisine.
“I brought fliers to the hair dressers, the barbershops, everywhere that I frequently visit and told them I was going to start cooking some food to sell," Becke said. "I started with catering events. And there was one gentleman who said to me, ‘Well, if you ever think of bottling this sauce, I would be happy to be an investor.’ I just shrugged it off and started laughing. Over the next couple of months, other people started telling me the same thing. ”
And so she purchased some jars from a dollar store and began bottling and selling her special jerk sauce, a Jamaican specialty that typically includes allspice and Scotch bonnet peppers, among other seasonings. It’s now bottled professionally at a facility in Baltimore.
“It is used to marinate. It is used for dipping. You can usually use it right out of the bottle,” Becke said.
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To her surprise, just like her grandmother taught her all those years ago, the goodness that she is showing to a motherless little girl in Jamaica is flooding back to her through her business. Friends have hired her to cook for their events. Others have stocked up on her sauce. And after two years of going it alone, a Philadelphia company got in, in a big way. The Perception, a small branding and advertising agency in Northern Liberties, is providing much-needed marketing help, gratis.
Brian Anderson, the firm’s principal and creative director, heard of Becke’s mission through a colleague at her real estate firm and immediately felt the urge to help.
“From the first time I met Althea, on the first call, I was hooked,” said Anderson, in an email. “The product is excellent, but it is always the ‘why’ for me. The story she told made me think to myself, ‘If not me, then who?’ Who would help change her path in life, which would also change the path of her best friend’s daughter?
"I know you can’t help everyone, but if you can make a small difference in someone’s life, it can make a world of impact.”
The folks at The Perception have helped with everything from branding to creating Becke’s still-in progress website. They also came up with her company’s current name, Althea’s Almost Famous.
“They just hit the ground running,” Becke marveled.
Thanks to help from Perception, Althea’s Almost Famous jerk sauce is now available in six retail outlets, including the LA Mart grocery store in Columbia, and on Amazon.
“If I didn’t have [Perception], I probably would still be selling it in just the neighborhood,” Becke said.
She’s been able to send money to Jamaica to help Sherika, now 5, with school supplies and other necessities. She still hopes to adopt her.
“My little one always says, 'Mommy, when is Sherika coming to live with us? I always say, ‘Soon — very soon,’ ” Becke said. “I made a promise to a friend and I’m going to keep that promise.”
Meantime, Becke leans on her faith and her grandmother’s advice: “If it’s in God’s will, it will happen.”